On Endings, On Writing, On MFA Programs

 This essay was first published by Women Writers, Women's Books: http://booksbywomen.org/sarah-layden-on-writing/

Polaroid photo of a windmill in corn field, with blue skies behind it

Many years ago, while commuting to my MFA program in creative writing, I made a habit of seeking out an old windmill along my route. It was both a landmark for the distance I had yet to travel, and a reminder that I was back home again in Indiana after years away.

Now that windmill is gone. By spring, Purdue University’s MFA program will be gone, too.

Perhaps the victim of a passing storm, the windmill once stood along I-65 between my home in Indianapolis and the West Lafayette exit to campus. Acres of industrial wind farms loomed further north, but that lone windmill was no more. Out of habit I still searched for it, driving north to Chicago to promote Imagine Your Life Like This, a collection of stories that I started in the first year of my MFA. That was 2003, twenty years before the book would be done and on the shelf.

The road bled into my writing. So did Indiana, experienced anew after a decade away. In my notebook I wrote about connection and disconnection, speeding tickets (I got two), fields of corn and soybean, lonely drivers in search of a life that eluded them. The naked cowboy, a man wearing only a straw hat and boots and waggling his hips at the passing cars and semis. Had he lost a bet? Found a hobby? I didn’t know. I wanted to, from a distance.  

My stories also featured Central New York, which I missed intensely after my husband and I moved. I’d left a reporting job in Syracuse so I could write fiction, something my entire being wanted to do. While difficult to leave, I was thrilled to meet my new community at Purdue.

One of my first MFA professors, Patricia Henley, shared an Isak Dinesen quote that I still think about: “I write a little every day, without hope, without despair.” The work, Patricia told her students, was the reward. With so much out of your control in publishing—agents, editors, reviews, sales—you could control your relationship to the work. Her new novel, A Sad Thought You Can Dance To, comes out in 2024.

At Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago, I saw another professor, Sharon Solwitz. I was there to present a panel and sign books, and I was honored to have Sharon’s blurbed endorsement on the back of my collection. In addition to three books of fiction, Sharon’s work appears in Best American Short Stories. We hugged. “You didn’t stop after Purdue,” she told me. This was her first year without a graduate workshop. She mentioned her colleagues, longtime faculty members who support each other amid budget and program cuts.

When I was a grad student, I worked on Purdue’s long-running literary journal, Sycamore Review, learning skills that later translated into a co-authored literary editing textbook. Fifteen years after I graduated, Sycamore Review published my flash fiction, “Gone for Good.” I keep years of issues on my bookshelves to loan to my college students, knowing the journal also might be gone for good.

I didn’t know back then how impermanent things could be; I only knew I felt compelled to record the world around me. On one commute, I brought my Polaroid camera to take a photo of the windmill. It was harder than I expected to find the right road to the farm after exiting the interstate. Then the dust from my tires needed to settle. My disturbance alerted the farmer, who drove out in his truck. He waved. It wasn’t friendly. I held up my camera as explanation. He sat and watched me until I drove away.

All I have is the photo. All I have is the memory. The windmill, too, makes an appearance in Imagine Your Life Like This. In “White Hands,” a woman’s car breaks down, along with her sense of responsibility. The windmill appears and disappears as she watches from the tow truck window.

I wasn’t towed, but I once ran out of gas when I misjudged the distance to the next exit. A State Trooper stopped to help and said he guessed that I wasn’t studying math at Purdue. Correct, sir. The work was hard to quantify. The work counted. There is no column on a spreadsheet to show the benefits of understanding the world through another point of view, and how thoughtful critique of your writing can change not only the writing, but you. Studying fiction does that.

Driving home from Chicago, I passed the wind farms that no longer seemed eerie to me. Now I am used to the towering height of these industrial windmills, their mechanical arms like slow and steady punches. On other trips, I took photos with my smartphone. This time, I didn’t.

More miles of cornfields and soybeans, then I reached the campus exit and caught a glint of metal through the trees. Another windmill in a field, waiting for nature to make its blades spin. Of course, it was there all along. My discovery only became possible from a different perspective.